California Safe Drinking Water Law Yields Grotesque Results

by Kevin Daw
Posted On: 7/24/2018

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"Unintended consequences" are defined as "Outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action." The term was popularized in the 20th Century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

I regard the outcome of the second phase of the California acrylamide case against coffee companies as the epitome of this social concept.  A judge has recently ruled that companies selling coffee must post warnings that coffee may cause cancer. The reason for his ruling illustrates my point.

California created a law, way back in 1986 that, at first sight, reads as completely reasonable with strong benefits for all who reside in the state. Entitled the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, the law was created to protect the populace against dangerous chemicals to which they might be exposed in any way.

The problem with such laws is that they are far too broad in scope and interpretation, allowing lawyers looking for a big score to search out any targets deemed to be worth the incredible amount of time, energy and expense needed for said lawyers to pounce on the opportunity to capture a nice slice of someone else's pie.

The recent decision was the result of a lawsuit filed in 2008 by a California-based nonprofit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics. The lawsuit targets Starbucks and many other coffee retailers under that Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which requires companies with more than 10 employees to warn their customers about the presence of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals in their products.

The judge's ruling, first reported by the Associated Press, stated that neither side disputed that acrylamide is present in coffee. He decided that the defendants had failed to show that acrylamide posed no risk, nor added any health benefits to, coffee at all. That sounds obvious. What isn't at all obvious however, is how much risk is actually present, and whether that risk outweighs the total benefit with which we've become familiar that coffee provides. According to the Associated Press, the defense was burdened with showing that acrylamide in coffee wouldn't cause one or more cases of cancer for every 100,000 people, but the judge said that the risk had not been properly evaluated.

This part is fascinating to me. Where did the judge come up with one or more people per 100,000, and how could anyone ever prove that acrylamide was the actual cause of a particular cancer? Why would companies have to prove that the acrylamide in coffee, in and of itself, doesn't cause cancer, when the levels of that chemical are lower in coffee than in many other products including potato chips –  and even one of my favorite side dishes, sweet potato fries?

The judge's ruling is tentative, but is unlikely to be reversed. The third phase of the trial will determine the civil penalties for which coffee companies are liable. In addition to the warning signs likely to result from the lawsuit, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, has asked for fines as much as $2,500 for every person exposed to the chemical since 2002. This in itself is a head-scratcher, but although I did much research, I could not deduce what would be done with these proceeds  although I would conjecture that every resident of California would be sent a form letter advising them of the suit, and asking them to fill out forms that would then entitle them to a small amount of the award, after the fees paid to the non-profit, and of course, to the legal team responsible for the winning of this award.


Roasted coffee contains acrylamide at somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 ppb. That's "parts per billion." According to the American Cancer Society, studies have found that acrylamide increases the risk of cancer in rats and mice when the chemical is placed in the animals' drinking water at doses "1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels people might be exposed to in foods." The Society doesn't know yet how this finding would translate to humans – we metabolize chemicals at differing rates than rodents – but it suggests limiting your intake of acrylamide.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests for acrylamide levels found they ranged from 175 to 351 parts per billion, for six brands of coffee tested; the highest being one type of decaf coffee crystals. By comparison, French fries at one fast food chain ranged from 117 to 313 parts per billion. Some commercial fries had more than 1,000.

I assume this is a measurement of ground coffee before brewing, which would make the amount in brewed coffee laughably small. What isn't laughable is the cost that companies unfortunate enough to be located in a state that has allowed such a loosely-worded law to exist possibly will have to bear.

I will not be cutting down my 10 cup a day habit any time soon.

As always, may your cup run full, and the brew be exquisite!

» KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries. A 30-year veteran of OCS, water delivery and vending operations, he has concentrated on coffee roasting for the past two decades.